Each day, Koriang would grab his spear or his net and go into the forest to hunt for food, leaving Kanku behind in the hut. He would come home with an antelope carcass slung over his shoulder, or a large fish or two. The ground around their hut was strewn with fallen leaves and dried twigs and each day when Koriang came home, Kanku would know by the sound of cracking twigs and rustling leaves, and she would run out to meet him. A day came that Koriang left for the forest, and Kanku sat outside their hut braiding her hair and waiting for him. Way too soon, she heard twigs breaking and leaves rustling—the sound of footsteps.
“Could that be Koriang? But it’s too early. Maybe he forgot something.”
She walked out to meet him, but there was nobody in sight and the footsteps had stopped. She went back to her stool. It was probably a guinea fowl… or a monkey. She went back to braiding her hair. Then it happened again—the sound of feet stepping on twigs and disturbing leaves, walking near the hut. She got up quickly, thinking that if she was fast enough she would catch the culprit. But again there was nothing, not a guinea fowl, not a monkey, not Koriang, except that the hairs on her arms and the back of her neck stood on end. She walked back to her seat and tried to finish braiding her hair. But she suddenly felt exposed, like she was being watched. She took her stool and went inside the hut to wait for Koriang.
Koriang came home that evening, and as they ate, Kanku considered telling him what had happened earlier that day. But what was there to tell, really? So she kept it to herself. The next day Koriang went away again and Kanku was left wondering whether it all had happened in her head. But as soon as the sun grew hot, the noises began. This time, it wasn’t a rustle here and a crackle there, it was multitudes of them. As if there were many pairs of feet, walking around the hut. They would stop for a while and then begin again. Kanku was very frightened. She shut herself inside the hut and waited for Koriang. She only left the hut when she heard his voice and was certain that it was him. She flung herself at him.
“Koriang! Koriang, I don’t think we are alone here! Whenever you leave, there are unseen things walking all around our hut. We need to leave Koriang. We need to find another place. There are many other beautiful places, just like you said. We must leave.”
Koriang sighed, “This is becoming too much. Calm down Kanku. Why are you so frightened? I have been hunting here but I’ve never seen any footsteps anywhere here. And I’m tired, Kanku. I am tired of moving around. I thought my search was over. This is becoming too much and I am very tired. You know what, I’ll take a look around the area and make sure that everything is safe. Will that please you, Kanku?”
Koriang was exasperated. He took his big spear and headed into the woods surrounding the hut. He went for quite a while, then he came back and took a close look at the ground all around the hut.
“You see Kanku? I’ve looked everywhere and I’m certain that it is very very safe. Don’t be frightened, my beautiful Kanku, who shares a name with my dearest mother. I won’t let anything happen to you.”
Koriang left to hunt the next morning and Kanku, yet again, was left all by herself. As she sat before her hut washing herbs, she heard the noises again, closer than they had ever been. “Kanku”, someone called, so close to her ear. She looked up from her herbs, startled. There before her the spirits of sannimentereng stood, in ethereal human form. A whole crowd of them, gazing at Kanku just as humans gather to gaze at a curiosity on the side of the road. Kanku tried to run, terrified.
“Don’t run, Kanku. Please don’t run.” A lady-spirit said. “My brother was taking a walk the other day, and he found you. He told us all about you, so we all came to see you. That explains the noises. But Kanku, we are very convinced that you belong with us. You are very special, you couldn’t possibly belong amongst humans.” The other spirits chorused, “True! Indeed! Ah-haa!”
She continued, “You must come with us to the world of spirits where you truly belong. There, no human being will run from you or make mockery of you. Come with us, Kanku.”
Her fear tamed, Kanku spoke. “Thank you for your words and your kind offer, but, even if I wanted to come with you, I couldn’t leave my husband Koriang behind. He loves me, and I love him. He is a kind man.”
A spirit with a gruff voice chimed in, “You have to make a choice. You either live with a man and continue to deal with humans who will treat you badly or come with us. You have to make your choice!”
As Kanku was talking to the spirits, Koriang came home. As soon as they saw Koriang, they all disappeared. Kanku told Koriang nothing of what had happened. They ate their evening meal and retired to bed.
When Koriang fell asleep, the spirits visited them in the hut. To Koriang they came as a dream, all dressed in white clothes, playing beautiful melodies from a strange looking instrument which Koriang had never before seen. They walked round and round them, enchanting him with the sweet, sweet melodies flowing from the strange instrument. He woke up from his dream panting, excited.
“Kanku! Kanku! Wake up Kanku!” He tapped at Kanku. “Have you seen what I have seen, Kanku? There were strange people… there was music… this instrument I have never seen before… it was wonderful, Kanku!”
“Koriang, go to sleep, I didn’t see anything.”
“Wake up, Kanku! You have to listen to my dream. Wake up!”
“What was it, Koriang?
“Oh Kanku! Are you sure you haven’t seen what I saw? I saw some people around us here, all dressed in white clothes, playing melodies that I have never heard in my entire life, with an instrument that I have never seen in my life. It will mean everything to me if I could just lay my hands on that instrument.”
Kanku laughed. “Everything?”
“Yes, everything. I just saw them right here!”
As they chattered about the dream in the middle of the night, the spirits suddenly appeared before them. “Yes!,” cried Koriang when he saw the instrument with two of the spirits. “I know what I saw, Kanku. This is the instrument I was telling you about. Ca- ca- can I touch it?”
“Yes you can touch it,” one of the spirits with the instrument said. “You can touch it in exchange for something.”
Well, I have a horse… will you take a horse?”
The spirits laughed. “We have no need for a horse. But you can touch this instrument in exchange for someone, someone you love.”
“But can I have the instrument?!
“I don’t mind parting with my instrument, if only you will give me in exchange, someone you love.”
“…you mean my wife?”
He suddenly grabbed Kanku and pulled her to himself.
“This dream is becoming a nightmare. I will not part with my wife. You have a thing, something human beings can make. I have a living human, whom I love. I will not exchange her for a thing.”
A spirit chuckled, “If you truly love Kanku, you will let her come with us. Her place is with us, where she will find true happiness and true peace.”
“Haven’t you fallen in love with the Kora?”
“Ye-yes. So that’s what it is called.”
“Well, take it and let her go. We will give you the Kora and leave you with all the knowledge of the Kora.”
“No, I cannot do that.”
They argued on and on. Kanku, who had been quiet all the while, spoke out for the very first time. She said, “Koriang, I know you truly love me, but let me make a decision. Take the Kora and let me go with the spirits. One day, you and your descendants will be celebrated all over the world. And whenever you touch the strings of the Kora, I will be with you.”
“Very well. If this is what Kanku desires.”
Tears streamed down Koriang’s face as he held Kanku for the very last time. Then he took the Kora from the spirit who held it out to him. The spirit took Kanku’s hand and they disappeared, leaving an eerie silence and an emptiness within Koriang.
Koriang Musa Susso passed his knowledge of the Kora to his children, and his children passed it onto theirs. This is how the Kora came to belong to the Susso family, and to the region that is now The Gambia.
Author’s Note: There are a few different narrations about the origin of the Kora and this is only one of them. It was adapted from the narration by the late Jali Alagie Mbye, may his soul rest in bliss.
You can find more of the author’s work on her blog, Of Womanness And Wild Dreams.